I feel badly – about some “rules” of grammar
Posted by metaphorical on 28 January 2007
The almost-always-right Grammar Girl falls into the prescriptivist trap this week with her correction of “feel badly,” as in, “I feel badly about that.” I already wrote a comment on her blog, but the topic is interesting enough that I thought I’d say a little more about it here. As I look into it, it seems that even the grammarians who allow the expression criticize it. I think even they are wrong.
Grammargirl’s point is summed up when she says,
The quick and dirty tip is that it is correct to say you feel bad when you are expressing an emotion. To say, “I feel badly,” implies that there’s something wrong with your sense of touch. Every time I hear people say, “I feel badly,” I imagine them in a dark room having trouble feeling their way around with numb fingers.
She’s hardly alone, in fact, hers is probably still the prevailing view. More moderating views have been coming to the fore in recent years, but they are still in fundamental agreement. For example, the American Heritage Book of English Usage says, “There is nothing wrong with maintaining this distinction, but don’t expect everyone else to share this view. It’s another useful distinction that is often ignored.”
The grammarian Diana Hacker says,
Of course, people are not actually confused by the incorrect uses. When we say I feel badly, no one in fact thinks we have a poor tactile sense. If the context suggests that health is the issue, everyone knows that we feel ill. If the context suggests that an emotional state is the issue, as in I felt badly upon hearing of her death, everyone knows that we feel sad.
yet she can’t quite give up the ghost. Hacker concludes,
Feel bad is the preferred form, but whether you write feel bad or feel badly, some educated readers will object. A sensible solution is to write around the problem. After all, we can always say that we feel ill (or don’t feel well)—or that we felt depressed, saddened, or despondent upon hearing the bad news.
I’ve never been a fan of the correction of ‘feel badly’ to ‘feel bad’ and after listening to Grammargirl I think I can say why.
The fact is, when people say “I feel badly,” we know they’re referring to their emotional state. The correction isn’t pedantic, it’s literally nonsense.
It makes no sense to say, “Since feel means to touch things, feeling badly means you’re having trouble touching things” because it makes no sense, or it is at least rude, to say to someone, “I know you’re talking about your emotional state, but because you spoke infelicitously, you really said something about the state of your fingers.”
We don’t have a lot of clear, descriptive language for emotional states, so it’s not surprising that we don’t do a good job of talking about them. But surely the person who says “I feel badly that X” means something like “My normal ability to feel good about life is impaired by the fact that X.” If that’s true, then “badly” is indeed an adverb modifying the verb “to feel,” and it’s not an incorrect usage at all. This analysis doesn’t shed new light into the dark corners of our minds where feelings lurk, but it has one overriding benefit: on it, the adverb is modifying the actual sense of the verb that the speaker is using, instead of one that has nothing to do with what they’re talking about.
Hacker is onto something when she says people aren’t confused by “feel badly.” Orwell wrote that “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
When I hear Grammargirl say, “Every time I hear people say, ‘I feel badly,’ I imagine them in a dark room having trouble feeling their way around with numb fingers,” like Hacker, I don’t believe her. I appreciate the way Grammargirl goes for the concrete image, instead of the euphamisms and masses “of Latin words” that, as Orwell puts it, fall “upon the facts like soft snow.” But Grammargirl’s image is false and insincere, because she knows full well what someone says when they say, “I feel badly about that.”
Language, Orwell says, is “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” In good grammar, like all good writing, precision is a means, not an end. To behave otherwise is to fall into the prescriptivist trap.